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Gray Anatomy

Should men color their gray hair or celebrate it?

Coloring gray hair: Does he or doesn’t he?

Gray hair, alas, is all but inevitable for most men. But that doesn’t mean we have to live with it. Drug store shelves are crowded with hair color products that promise to wash out the gray and restore hair to its youthful hue.

David Cannell, senior vice president of R&D at L’Oreal USA, one of the leading hair products manufacturers, offers some advice in navigating the bewildering number of choices. “For men’s products, there have been generally four categories,” Cannell says:

  • Progressive coloring. The “Grecian Formula” approach uses lead acetate, which darkens with exposure to air. Hair is colored gradually, so you can stop when you’ve achieved the effect you want.
  • Direct dyes. Made of colored molecules that coat hair, these are quick and easy to apply. The drawback: They typically wash away after only 6 to 10 shampoos. On the plus side, that means you don’t have to worry about gray roots. The dye is gone before they can show up.
  • Semi-permanent color. Also called tone on tone, this uses peroxide to allow color molecules to enter the hair shaft, thus creating a more permanent color. These products usually take 5 to 15 minutes to apply and last about twice as long as direct dyes.
  • Regular permanent color. This uses both peroxide and ammonia, which can lighten the natural pigment of hair, allowing men to select shades lighter than their original hair color. These products are also used to create highlights. The drawback: if you don’t like the color, you’re stuck with it until hair grows out — or you dye it over again, which can be tricky.


DIY vs. professional hair color treatments

When can you do it yourself — and when should you turn to a hair stylist? Off-the-shelf home hair coloring products are fine if you’re using color to blend or cover a little bit of gray, Cannell says. But if you have a lot of gray hair, you’re likely to get a better result going to a salon.

Even professional hair coloring, of course, isn’t forever. When the gray starts to show, you need to reapply color. This may be up to every four weeks if you’re pretty gray to begin with.

Is there a cure for gray hair?

Are colored molecules really the best that science can offer? What about basic research into the “gerontobiology of the hair follicle pigmenting unit”? Can’t scientists do anything to stop us from going gray in the first place?

Someday, perhaps. “The decoding of the human genome has spurred much research into which genes are responsible for hair structure and coloration,” Cannell says. “By learning how the melanocytes are coded to produce pigment, it is conceivable that the process of graying could be halted or delayed.”

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